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Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory

2012 November 28
by Sheila

This is the rough script of my Digital Dialog given at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. Keynote slides and a recording of my talk are available on the Digital Dialogues site, and the slides are available on SlideShare. Many thanks go to my wonderful hosts at MITH for inviting across the river to speak.

This piece was an editor’s choice on Digital Humanities Now.

The title of my talk today, “Getting to the Stuff” is taken from Tim Sherratt, whose work I greatly admire. His essay, “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People” was featured in the first issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities first issue on theory and DH.

The type of work that Tim is doing with the Invisible Australians project is identifying individuals who were silenced by the law, by using photographs and official national documents that labeled individuals by their race for the purpose of state-mandated oppression. He is giving them voices, giving them a presence.

“linking these identities up with other records, with the research of family and local historians, with cemetery registers and family trees, with newspaper articles and databases we don’t even know about yet. We want to find people, families, and communities.”

“The most exciting part of online technology is the power it gives to people to pursue their passions. As with the faces, we don’t need the help of the National Archives. We need the records to be digitized, but that’s happening anyway and we can afford to be patient. Most of the tools we need already exist, and are free.” Tim Sherratt

There is great potential for history museums (including historical societies and historic properties) in the US to contribute and help make connections by applying digital tools and methodologies to their collections. Except there is a problem: history museums in the US, generally do not share much online, and when they do share little of it is discoverable, open, or extractable–unlike libraries and some archival collections that have made great strides in digitization, many museum catalogs are not shared or digitized.

One of my favorite museums, the National Building Museum, for example shares very little from its exhibitions and collections.

This is catching up with them, and will contribute to a perceived absence of sources. Non-textual sources found in museums—and elsewhere– work to inform us of stories absent or obscured in textual records.

With many students and scholars beginning their research with online search and discovery tools, if cultural heritage collections are not visible online, in some form, what are the implications of these absences?

As one participant tweeted from the Museum Challenges conference held in Australia this week, “Collections are useless unless they are used.”

Once discovered, there is great potential for the museum to benefit from increased traffic, virtual and physical, and use of their collections should increase which only helps the institution accomplish its mission. In the meantime, historians like me, look to other accessible online collections, such as eBay for accessible online material culture.

This isn’t necessarily bad, but with objects that are bought and traded, often there isn’t a permanent record of their life, their provenance, their context.

Today, I’d like share and talk with you about some of my research into history museum collections and presence online, and move on to discuss ways that I think history museums are still negotiating their places as sites of memory and emotion, and their place as a teaching institution for historical methods but also for opening up stories from the past that might be uncomfortable. I’d also like to talk about ways that we think that DH projects and center can work more with museums to open up collections and make the objects more accessible to digital methodologies.

For this talk, I will talk mostly about history museums. I would like to see more folks distinguish among the museum genres when we talk about museum use, development, and adoption of digital technologies. I organized a roundtable at last year’s Museum Computer Network conference called History Museums are not Art Museums, Discuss! with David Klevan of US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Eric Johnson, now of Scholars’ Lab and formerly of Monticello, and Sharon Leon from RRCHNM. And the purpose of that was to address some disciplinary differences among museum content in gallery, which also affects approaches to their digitized, and digital materials.

An art museum may be content with letting a piece of art speak for itself, art for arts sake, that allows the individuals to analyze, be moved, or bored by a piece.

This approach is really exemplified by the Google Art Project. This interpretative approach is extremely traditional, that enforces a connoisseurship approach to material culture that emphasizes studying details of the piece, medium, and the artist. They recently added a “compare” option that gives one the feeling of watching dual slide projectors from an art history class. On Google Art, there is very little context about the pieces shared.

This art history approach, also seen in other art museum collection sites,
like the Walters, which is among the best, you may browse by artist, categories, medium, and by user-generated collections.

This approach isn’t necessarily appropriate for a history museum. Does the aestheticizing of objects that occurs in art museums and on their websites influence our expectations of how history museums should share their collections or generate online content? Or does this distract from our understanding of how that artifact was made, used, passed on, part of a larger set, discarded?

In ’04, I was working at a museum and on a minor field focusing on the history museum web with Roy Rosenzweig, who suggested that I should do some type of systematic review of existing websites to note trends and patterns in the diverse array of history museums across the US, because nothing existed at the time.

This was of particular interest to me and Roy, because of his research together with David Thelen in Presence of the Past that examined the ways that Americans engaged with the past in their everyday lives. They discovered that many Americans regularly visited museums and historic sites and trusted those sites and interpretations more than what they experienced in history classrooms with textbooks.

I wanted to see what history museums were sharing with their visitors online, and if these institutions offered opportunities for meaning-making or knowledge-sharing with visitors of any age, in any location, by engaging with institutional collections, exhibitions, online lesson plans, or participatory endeavors. With some notable exceptions, I found that most history museums did not share much of their content, collections, or expertise online.

If you’re interested in reading my statement, feel free to download the PDF The History Museum Web Examined, 2004. To view the survey data and list of museums surveyed in 2004 only, see this snippet from the larger report.

Early museum websites were not much more than online brochures, and some remain in that state, while larger institutions launched rich online narrative exhibits especially in the mid-00′s.

Some beautifully designed, content-rich, sites such as Lewis and Clark, National Bicentennial; America on the Move, National Museum of American History; and the MesoAmerican Ballgame provided narrative paths for visitors to follow, or they could explore objects, maps, games, or lesson plans.

In contrast, The Raid on Deerfield, the Many Stories of 1704 (2004) project came from the small Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Memorial Hall Museum created a virtual exhibit that offered 5 cultural perspectives and interpretations of the events in Deerfield, MA through artifacts, maps, songs, and narrative.

While these exhibition sites looked great, there were some drawbacks. The examples I cite above were wrapped in Flash that isolated content, including objects, making pages un-shareable by visitors and invisible by web searches (unless there was a duplicate HTML site). For museums, the content was quarantined and not reusable. These sites required a huge investment of staff time and exhibition budget monies to produce.

Last year, I wanted to know what changed in 7 years with the history museum web, particularly as I notice museums developing for the mobile web, sharing collections via APIs, and inviting the public to co-curate exhibitions. While there are more digital tools available to facilitate some of this work, I see a lot of innovation in art and science museums, and less from history museums (again, with some notable exceptions). To really know what the history museum web looked like in 2011, I looked at a lot websites.
This survey offers a good snapshot of what history museums–including large and small, national, regional, and local museums, historic sites and houses, and living history museums–are doing on their websites and with their web presence.

In total, I reviewed a sampling of 115 websites out of the 1179 self-identified history museums listed in the American Association of Museums’s online member directory. I started with the first museum listed and counted down 10 to select my next for review. This method made choosing sites easy and was guided by numbers. I encountered about a dozen museums that listed no website.

I skimmed through each site looking for history and exhibit content, collections, educational and/or teaching materials, social networking presence, and basic visitor information. I published all of my data in a Google spreadsheet, State of History Museums 2011, for all to see and use.

Survey Highlights

  • History museums in 2004 offered more narratives and stories related to exhibitions than in 2011.
  • Nearly 70 percent of history museums provide only a summary or list of exhibitions.
  • Only 2 museums offered a means for closely examining an object.
  • Searchable collections databases were available in 17 percent of museums, up from 9 percent in 2004, while 37 percent offer no collections information (not even a summary or finding aide).
  • Nearly 70% of history museum sites offer no online teaching & learning materials. Most list programs offered on-site with contact information, only.
  • Facebook is the most popular social network where museums have a presence at 56 percent and weren’t doing much there other than publicizing programs. And, 42 percent of history museums have no social media presence.
  • Visitors can now expect almost every history museum to contain basic visitation information, which sites did not always offer in 2004.

Overall, more history museums have websites and they provide basic information about the physical sites, but most still are not engaging online visitors in meaningful ways. Some museums, however, have dramatically increased the type of content they provide and have also changed the ways that they interact with their visitors.

Some museums are creating digital strategies to think beyond their website, including means to better re-use, distribute, and share object-related content in different ways and facilitate co-creation of content with their audiences, like the Children of Lodz Ghetto project from the Holocaust Museum.

Additionally, many different types of museums are app-ifying new experiences that are not available through a traditional website or that require a museum visit, and are accessible only with mobile devices, either provided by a museum or accessible via visitors’ own smartphone or tablet.
This is happening much more regularly with art, natural history, science museums than history museums, and the apps mostly replicate audio tour frameworks. The National Underground Railroad Museum, however, has used that as a model, and developed an iOS app that contains audio tour content that one might use at the museum.

Some are testing out games, but not always in ways that serve students well because they are not teaching them how to do history, such as Building Detroit. You make random choices about which crops to grow and you earn points, but don’t know why.

Though none of the museums I surveyed do this, there are a few US museums that are sharing raw data, such as the Brooklyn Museum and Cooper-Hewitt, by developing APIs to share their collections and are encouraging developers and enthusiasts to build something new or analyze this information in ways useful to them.

As curators and educators are increasingly comfortable, even if still reluctant to “letting go” of their omniscient authority in museum expertise, there still seems to be little effort to explore multiple perspectives, explore the ways that evidence can be interpreted in different ways, that ultimately encourage visitors to learn to look, compare, contextualize.

After completing my survey and continuing to monitor new exhibitions, I think the time has passed when online exhibitions like the Raid on Deerfield will be created by history museums. This kind of layered content works well on the web, and also serves the purpose of unveiling the processes of historians.

Trying to tackle the murkiness of historical interpretation in a more public way may help visitors balancing the stories that they bring with them to museums about particular subjects–identified as “personal contexts” by Lynn Dierking and John Falk, and as collective memories from different sociological groups they belong, according to Maurice Halbwachs.

Sometimes history museums are described as places where history and memory collide or conflict (think of the Enola Gay controversy, or any exhibit on southern history). But, I do see potential for museums to help bridge the personal, or what they believe to be personal, with what they encounter inside a museum or on its website or app by using objects and a variety of sources to help visitors be better readers of history.

Steven Conn identifies part of the problem in Do Museums Still Need Objects. He has observed that the physical spaces inside all museums is shrinking and that means that history museums are exhibiting fewer objects – even as their collections grow. The exhibit space competes with experiential environments or video theaters, shops, cafés, et al. The result is that those few objects on display carry a huge interpretative weight, and that burden is unnecessarily heavy. Exhibits now do not always have the space to explore multiple perspectives or to provide the context to be derived from multiple supporting objects within the same area.

If this omniscient museum voice is replicated online, then, we are reproducing the problem that already exists in our physical spaces. If we want to connect more visitors to collections, open those up for greater use and interpretation, why not use the capacity of an online environment to share more objects and demonstrate the ways to answer historical questions using a variety of sources?

Now, let’s get real about museum collections. Collections aren’t definitive or complete.

Susan Stewart argues in her book On Longing that the act of collecting is really one of forgetting. The process of creating a collection implies selection and the application of a personal criteria that is meant to stand in for something whole, but that it is completely de-contextualized, re-wrapped into a somewhat artificial package. We are always missing pieces that we can never recoup, rarely reunite, and never recover what is thrown away.

Bringing together objects that once had a life together that have since been separated into different institutional and personal collections is difficult. There was a neat site, that has now come down, that was a reconstruction of the King’s Kuntskammer from the National Museum of Denmark. Took a lot of institutional cooperation, but was a nice collaborative effort from 2004.

Some things are not saved because there is no longer personal value, and there may be no perceived market value. Such as a stamp book created by someone who did not care about classifying stamps, but instead created designs using the colors of the stamps. This came up for an auction and it was put aside, never to be sold, because the auction thought it held no value…for philatelists, that is. A curator at the National Postal Museum actually rescued it from the trash. This particular artifact became an important source for me, because it represented the work of a collector who didn’t belong to a club or follow philatelic rules, but who collected and used stamps in their own way.

As a historian, I approach absences as a given. It is important, always, when thinking about museums and their collections, about the ways that certain objects have been collected and saved for public consumption. One person’s personal interest, something saved as a souvenir, may become a museum artifact.

Someone’s intentional collection, such as Miss Frank E. Butloph’s menu collection for the New York Public Library, was once considered mundane have come to life because of the digital community transcription project. Now these menus are more accessible and have a new value as historical resource for foodies and historians thanks to the innovative folks at the NYPL Labs. The project is also making the data available twice a month. Nearly 15K have been fully transcribed, with more to go.

What’s on the Menu project offers an example of how a digital project has changed this NYPL collection of restaurant and event menus. People are using it! Again, this type of innovation is coming from a library, not a museum.

We’ve seen in the past 10 years, how the availability of more textual sources has really opened up research for historians like me working in the 19th and early 20th Century. We can learn more about the lives of everyday Americans from the millions of pages searchable through the Chronicling America project that has digitized hundreds of small town newspapers. Administered and managed by the Library of Congress, the project enforced metadata and encoding standards to ensure that an API could be produced from the data collected.

We need a Chronicling America program for museum collections!

As I’ve noted, more museums are sharing collections online. But it can still be difficult to find these sources. Here are some examples:

One of the first, and very good, examples of a museum sharing their collecting online came from the National Postal Museum, Arago. The site lets users search, browse, and explore, and then save and annotate objects in a My Collection section. It is very difficult, however, if you want to extract this data, or even grab an image. I’ve tried.

Also the objects here aren’t discoverable in Google. You have to know to go here. If you want to find John Lennon’s childhood stamp album and you search, you will, luckily, find a short online exhibit by NPM that accompanied a temporary show at the museum. But, if you Google it you won’t find the records in Arago.

The Henry Ford Museumalso has a great online collection portal. They let visitors browse, search, and create their own sets, plus you may share your sets and create a little exhibit to add some context to your object.

I found a great truck, with good metadata, on their site, the 1915 Chevy Royal Mail. A Google search does not return this collection item in a few pages of results, even when I then add “the Henry ford Museum” to the terms.

I do find, however, a Flickr photo, from the Museum’s group, with metadata, and a link back to the original. This means they are sharing and adding metadata in multiple places. And it still is hard to extract and link the data.

The possibilities of linking material objects with documents, oral histories, photographs through linked open data would be amazing. Smart folks like Jon Voss and Mia Ridge are working with libraries, archives, and museums through meetings to create a community of practitioners dedicated to publishing LOD to open up collections-based data sets.

This still seems far away for most US history museums, even though very recently, Tim Sheratt tells us that anyone can do it!

Ok, so what if you share your metadata?

Seb Chan, reports, that most metadata is not very good. At the Cooper-Hewitt Lab, they have made peace with their metadata and aren’t afraid of it, because the collection is what distinguishes that museum from others, and from other online sources.

Sometimes this collections data yields other information, such as an eye into an institution’s collecting practices. One example can be found the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s visualization of their records, that includes seller, purchase price information, dates of acquisition, where paintings were donated or loaned, and medium.

Apparently, history museums aren’t the only ones “failing the internet” so is the art history world, according to a recent op-ed piece written by the president of the J Paul Getty Trust. James Cuno writes, “we aren’t conducting art historical research differently. We aren’t working collaboratively and experimentally.” “We are still proprietary when it comes to our knowledge. We want sole credit for what we write.” And art museums aren’t helping the ways that they place severe restrictions on usage of their art. Art museums were recently called out by Beth Harris and Steve Zucker for not supporting educational missions by enforcing strict copyright policies.

History museums can do some things to help keep interest in their collections, and make them visible by researchers of all kinds.

  1. . Remind us why we use material culture. Meaning is not inherent to an object, it is attributed in many different ways from its form to function. Steven M. Beckow wrote in 1975 that “The idea of an artifact is the idea of culture.” This also means that everything has a context that is meaningful, and contributes to our understanding of the culture that produced and used the object. No artifact exists or can be interpreted alone. This is what makes a museum great, and different. Show us more objects!
  2. Open your collections data and publish it online –with all of its warts. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it should be accessible. Please release your metadata as CC-O with thumbnail reference images that are low-res but identifiable. This will bring in researchers of all ages.
  3. Use digital spaces to offer context of these objects, by using the web’s ability to manage by design multiple interpretations and multi-layers of context surrounding artifacts. These exhibitions do not have to cost a lot of money to produce, there are many tools that will allow you to accomplish these objectives.
  4. Invite scholars and enthusiasts from outside of your museum to contribute curated content, that includes some of your collections, publish it on your website and possibly make the process visible.

Funding is always a problem, and there aren’t many funding sources for digitization but this must be seen as an institutional priority. I do see hope for funding better contextual use and reuse collections through the new NEH Public Programs grant, Digital Projects for the Public.

If you’re not in the game soon, those collections, those stories, can be lost and undiscoverable.

Objects from our past are very visible and for sale on television, online, and in local antique shops. Someone tells a story for each thing, but what other content might be available for someone watching “Pawn Stars” wanting to learn more about the blunderbuss that just sold. You hear what Rick the co-owner says, but a museum might have something else to contribute. Where is that viewer going to find that information? Share some of your expertise on your own site or at least on Wikipedia. If you don’t you are absent from the conversation, and your objects have little chance to live beyond the museum’s storage facility.

Questions, I asked the crowd.

So, will you use these collections if they become more widely accessible and available?

Here are a few questions, curious from audience:
1. Do you currently use, or have you used, museum objects and collections, in your research?

2. How do you identify appropriate or possible museum collections to use in your research? Personal knowledge of a collection, inquire at a local museum, Google or J-Store, or I don’t know where to begin

3. Do you use, or have you used, web auction sites (eBay, for example) to identify historical objects for analysis?

4. Would you be more likely to use museum collections as primary sources for your research if you could find them easily online?

5. Are you interested in gaining access to museum collections data for your own analysis, such as for text or data mining, topic modeling, visualizations? If yes, for what?

6. Would you be interested in sharing your research with a museum whose objects you analyzed in your research project.

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